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Ultimate Concern - Tillich in Dialogue by D. Mackenzie Brown

Donald Mackenzie Brown is Chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California in Santa Barbara. This book was published in 1965 by Harper & Row, Publishers. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.

Introduction -- Paul Tillich: "A Pervasive Sense of Joy"

During the weeks of the seminar which this book presents, one quality in Paul Tillich’s teaching was especially evident. He maintained throughout the attitude of a fellow searcher after truth, never that of the pedagogue. It was as though each student had some unique experience or insight which Dr. Tillich considered vital to know. He was never so pleased as when he was contradicted and a new viewpoint or an unfamiliar fact was presented to him.. Needless to say, instances of successful contradiction were rare indeed.

No account of Tillich’s life can quite explain the enormous influence he has exerted on contemporary religious thought, but such accounts do show the depth and breadth of his experience. He was born in Prussia in the year 1886, five years after the death of Fedor Dostoevski. This fact may seem especially noteworthy, until one considers that much of Tillich’s life has been a fight against Dostoevski’s Grand Inquisitor "History has shown," says Tillich, "that the Grand Inquisitor is always ready to appear in different disguises, political as well as theological." And so he has constantly been on the lookout for authoritarian systems which threaten to stultify the life of the individual.

Tillich’s reaction against authoritarianism in his own life can probably be explained in the light of his early years. He was brought up in the small town of Schonfliess in eastern Germany. The town was medieval, surrounded by a wall, which symbolized for Tillich the narrowness and restrictedness of his environment. Perhaps more important, his father was a conservative Lutheran minister who tried to wield authority over Tillich’s way of thinking as well as his actions. In nature Tillich found his first escape, his first freedom as an individual. Through his "mystical participations" in the woods and the fields, he felt he was experiencing the Christian’s liberation from bondage which had been Christ’s message. In the year 1900 Tillich moved with his family to Berlin and found a new freedom in the openness of a great city. When he attended the University there, the academic life encouraged individualism and he felt an intellectual autonomy for the first time.

Yet it must not be thought that Tillich was a complete revolutionist. He has often been called a romanticist. As noted, his romanticism involved nature, but it was also concerned with history. He has always revered history "as a living reality in which the past participates in the present." In spite of his early criticism of the nineteenth century, of which he was a part, he sometimes looks back to it with nostalgia for the intellectual freedom he remembers. One might say that his life work has been to restore the Western individual’s relation to his tradition by pointing to the timeless elements in that tradition which have been unwittingly rejected by contemporary man — rejected along with those dogmas which science and technology have made unacceptable. In this sense he is a conserver rather than revolutionist.

World War I marks the end of what Tillich calls his preparatory period. There occurred then what he considers a personal kairos: during one terrible night of the battle of Champagne, in July of 1916, he witnessed the suffering and death of hundreds of casualties in the division in which he served as chaplain. The horror of that night, during which he lost some of his friends, never left him, and the whole structure of classical idealism under which the war had taken place was shattered. After the war he was engrossed by the new political movements in his defeated nation and has since maintained a keen interest in "religious socialism."

From 1919 to 1933, Tillich wrote all of his German works. During this time he taught at several universities throughout Germany. In 1933 he was forced by Hitler to leave and came to the United States. Through the efforts of Reinhold Niebuhr he was invited to join the faculty of Union Theological Seminary, and it was there that he found a stimulating and sympathetic environment to further develop his ideas. Union Seminary not only provided an introduction to American life but, situated in New York City, became the crossroads for theologians from all over the world. Tillich retained his interest in European society through his contacts with fellow German refugees. At the same time, he was excited by his vision of the New World. He delighted in the American courage to risk failure and remain open to the future.

Tillich reflects Kierkegaard (who greatly influenced him during his student years at the University in Halle) in stressing the need for each individual to confront his existence alone, in the inwardness of his soul. Man’s fulfillment must be found through his own inner courage and vision. The fundamental question of human existence — "What am I?" — can only be answered by one who asks the question.

In part it is the chronology of Tillich’s life, spanning the two world wars, spanning the conflicts of science and religion, politics and ethics, authority and freedom in this century, that makes his analyses of the religious situation and the problems of our day so meaningful. One suspects, however, that neither his placement in the history of ideas nor even his intellectual genius would in themselves have provided the power which he has wielded in the thought of our time. One might explain it by saying again that he has remained always the student as well as the teacher. Tillich expresses it best perhaps in his "Autobiographical Reflections": "I have always walked up to a desk or pulpit with fear and trembling, but the contact with the audience gives me a pervasive sense of joy, the joy of a creative communion, of giving and taking, even if the audience is not vocal."1

1. "Autobiographical Reflections of Paul Tillich," in The Theology of Paul Tillich, Charles W. Kegley and Robert W. Bretall, eds. (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1961), p. 15.

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